A Kiwi couple's cruising adventures on America's Great Loop and around the coast of New Zealand

Saturday, 9 January 2016

El Nino and the Barrier

Great Barrier Island is a large island at the entrance to the Hauraki Gulf, approximately 40NM from Auckland City. It is a popular destination for boaties in summer as its most visited harbour , the fiord-like Port Fitzroy, is well sheltered, deep and provides good anchorages for many boats. The downside to the "Barrier", as it is commonly known, is that you have to cross the Colville or Craddock Channels to get there. Both of these Channels are subject to strong currents and, under adverse conditions such as wind against tide, even relatively light winds can turn them into washing machines. Many overseas visitors report that some of the worst seas they encounter on their trans-Pacific voyagers, are near the Barrier.

Our son, Adam, lives on Great Barrier at Tryphena, the largest population area of the islands 750-odd inhabitants. There is a regular ferry service from Auckland City, but Tryphena Harbour is exposed to winds from S through to NW and there are very few sheltered anchorages from winds in these directions that haven't been taken over by local moorings. However we had committed to joining him to celebrate Christmas day and departed on the 18th December with the intention of spending the next 2 months cruising the Barrier, the East Coast of Coromandel to Mercury Bay and returning to Auckland via Coromandel Township and the "Bottom end" of Waiheke - these destinations are shown in red circles on the following map

As the entire world knows, we are currently in a Global "El Nino" weather pattern. In NZ, this usually manifests itself as "windy and dry" in the South island, and very windy and wet in the North - so we were a little sceptical on how well our plans would pan out. It was blowing SW when we departed, around 15-20kts, but when we arrived at Oneroa, our first overnight anchorage, this picked up to 25-30kts remaining through the next day as well. The following day we moved to the bottom end of Waiheke (5NM closer to Tryphena) to wait for a weather window for a safe crossing. We tried fishing but it was too blustery to drift fish,which is the only method I have found works in the particular place we were. On the second morning, we were greeted by a pod of around 12 dolphins that came in for breakfast and cavorted around us for over an hour.

After 2 days of gusty SW winds we got a lull on the 23rd which according to the forecast, would be the last opportunity to cross before Boxing day, at least. It turned out to be a pleasant voyage and we pulled into Tryphena around midday. The following day, Christmas eve, was awful with the winds gusting 35kts from the SE, which causes a nasty beam-on roll to set up from the Colville Channel. Christmas day started out the same, but moderated once we went ashore to enjoy Adam's excellent 5 course Degustation lunch with all the trimmings. The roll was still there when we returned, so we moved to a small bay around the corner and had a comfortable night.

The next few days were forecast to be 10 - 15 kts, so we used the opportunity to scamper up to Port Fitzroy in superb conditions, where we were joined by Adam and Peter for a few days of calm, sunny weather, and caught up with friends from our marina - Chrissy and Bob on "Taurus".

Heading up from Tryphena

The "Broken Islands"

Looking back towards Tryphena

The tip of the Coromandel Peninsular

Through the Broken Islands

Approaching Man O War Passage

Port Fitzroy

Warrens Bay

Our G Pier Friends - Taurus

Kiwiriki Bay

Although it doesn't really show in the pics, there were a LOT of boats in Fitzroy, and every night, every anchorage was full. Not such a problem in light conditions, but on the day before New Years Eve, the first Gale warning was issued by MetService - E35-50kts. This had many boats crowding into sheltered bays and we took up anchorage in Warrens Bay amongst about 50 others. The first strong winds and torrential rain hit around 10pm and by midnight were howling way in excess of 50 knots. 2 yachts (sailboats) nearby began to drag anchor and had to relocate. I had set the track feature on the iPad Navionics app, and it had drawn a "smiley face" as the boat swung through an arc on the anchor. I knew that as long as the icon signifying the boat was on the smile, we were still holding anchor, and this it did while I sat watch until dawn. By then the wind had eased to around 40kts and I figured if we hadn't dragged by then we wouldn't now, so I went below to get some sleep. A few moments later I heard a roar of engines nearby and got up to find Taurus driving furiously against a howling gale of over 60kts trying to get  his anchor up as another sailboat had dragged back against him.  To maintain steerage he had to motor forward with his anchor still partly deployed and his anchor dropped over my chain and caught on it. Suddenly he was alongside, then behind, but tethered to our bowsprit and his chain running under our hull, endangering our props, shafts, rudders and underwater exhausts. To avoid absolute calamity required extracting his 33kg (75lb) Rocna anchor with a 50cm (15") blade from over our anchor chain. All the while 50ft of chain and 19 tonne of Taurus were trying to keep it there. I could only reach it by lying prone on the bowsprit, hanging over the side and lifting it towards me. I got it on the second try - I don't know how - but I had the bruises on my chest, arms and lower body for a week afterwards to prove it wasn't easy. Here's a pic of the track on the iPad showing the saga as it unfolded. The smiley mouth is the overnight track and the zigzag is where Taurus pulled us out and we swung around trying to get uncoupled. Finally, we got away, retrieved our anchor and got the hell outa there.

From New Years Day, boats began to leave the Barrier. We stayed on in the hope that the weather would moderate - it didn't! After 3 more Gale warnings and uncomfortable days and nights where you couldn't leave your boat, or go for a swim we decided that enough was enough and left on 6th January for home at 5.45pm. The wind was supposed to be easing to E10kts, but crossing the Colville Channel it was gusting 25 giving a lumpy 2m (7ft) beam sea with the occasional 2.5m (9ft). Part way out we decided that our usual 9kt cruise was too uncomfortable so we picked it up to 17kts and cut the crossing time in half. Originally we intended to stop over at an outlying island for the night, but as we got closer we decided the marina was a better idea and arrived home at 10pm.

There's the route.....we stayed on the boat 2 more days at the marina before coming home for a break. In the 21 days we were out, there were 3 days where the wind was below 10kts. There were 3 days where it was above 50. The rest were between 15 and 45, with the majority above 20. Since we have been at home the weather has not improved.

El Nino sucks


  1. Hi Loopy Kiwi, Yup, The weather sounds like a few trips I took at that time of year, back in the eighty's, can be great or crap, you sure got the crap one.Well you can look forward to the calmer Feb/March time.Enjoy the NZ summer.We continue our loop late Feb from Mobile, Cheers.

  2. Thanks Auskiwiloop. I checked out your blog - you guys certainly get around! Enjoy the rest of your Loop - you've got the good bit next (crossing the Gulf). It will remind you of home!
    The weather's improving here, although Tropical Cyclone Ula is lurking about near Vanuatu. We may be able to get some decent boating in yet.